Who wrote 'O'? Guess away.

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; C01

AWashingtonian wants to know what others do not - the names on a state dinner guest list, for example, or the hidden identity of a dishy source - and therefore his or her favorite pastime is the guessing game. Whom will so-and-so pick as a running mate? Who will replace Robert Gibbs as press secretary?

The possibilities are endless.

Narrowing it all down is an infectious and often irritating exercise that runs rampant at book parties, fundraisers and happy hours in the DMV . Into this speculative fray comes catnip from the New York publishing world: "O," subtitled "a presidential novel," an anonymously written narrative inspired by the 2008 presidential campaign. It hits bookstores Jan. 25, but its contents have been leaked to stoke interest in what might otherwise be dull, juiceless political trope.

Right now everyone's asking all the right questions, no doubt delighting publisher Simon & Schuster.

Who's the author? Is it somebody in the realm of satirist Andy Borowitz? (No, the prose is not antic enough.)

Is it someone like ABC's White House correspondent Jake Tapper or former troublemaking Wonkette Ana Marie Cox? (No, his carefully manicured reputation would suffer if the book was poorly received, and as for her, it's just not saucy enough.)

Which characters align with which real-life figures? "Tom Morrison," the retired four-star general and Republican nominee, is obviously modeled on John McCain, and "Bianca Stefani," the liberal founder of an online news aggregator, is obviously Arianna Huffington.

But who is "Tess Gilchrest, a volunteer on O's campaign"? (Is it you, dear reader?)

According to an e-mail sent Tuesday by publisher Jonathan Karp, the author has "been in the room with Barack Obama." (What room? The conservatory? With the candlestick?) Karp then asked Really Insidery Insiders to abstain from denying that they are the author of the book.

It was a weird e-mail. Both coy and cloying. But clever. We are, after all, gifting space in these pages to discuss the book.

"It seems like people are taking Karp's e-mail a little too seriously, and it seems like a wink-wink publicity ploy," says Elyse Cheney, a New York literary agent to political writers. Whether or not the book has legs is "all going to depend how good the book is. He's done a great job getting attention for it."

The obvious forerunner to "O" is "Primary Colors," the 1996 publishing sensation that fictionalized the Clintons' first White House run while demonstrating insightful knowledge about the real-life saga. Both the mystery of and scandal in "Primary Colors" helped propel it up the bestseller list. The problem with novelizing the Obamas: They aren't toting any salacious baggage. And suddenly the guessing game becomes less titillating.

"First of all you've got a president who has not a hint of sex scandal about him, which is a lot of what made 'Primary Colors' work," says a senior publishing executive in New York, who has not read "O" and was granted anonymity to speak freely. "Even the catalogue description [of 'O'] did not make me think, 'God, I gotta see what's inside.' What made the insiders really latch on to 'Primary Colors' is that everybody knew how accurate it was. There was a lot of imagination in there, but general principles of the Clinton characters' actions were not too far from the truth."

"O" has something else working against it: How can fiction top the reality depicted in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's "Game Change," a straight, sourced (however imperfectly), nonfiction account of the campaign that featured scathing profanity, cringe-worthy betrayal and the late Elizabeth Edwards tearing off her blouse in public to get her husband to look at her?

Regardless, Barnes & Noble is taking "a fairly aggressive stance" and has ordered a high volume of copies of "O," according to Mary Ellen Keating, the bookseller's senior vice president of corporate communications.

Eventually, the author will be revealed or outed, as Joe Klein was by this paper seven months after the publication of "Primary Colors." Until then, we posit that the author is Oprah - the first person who comes to mind when one ponders the letter "O" - and that the novel has encoded instructions for the reader to fall asleep every night to the soothing affirmations of the Oprah Winfrey Network.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company